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Fans of the Something Weird DVD label are accustomed to sleazy double and triple bills of obscure exploitation films they never heard of, but this particular release features a pair of quality titles. Obsessed Brian De Palma fans can finally see the director's first full-length feature to be exhibited commercially, a feverish bag of cinematic tricks that screams "talented student filmmaker -- Here!" The second-billed title is an undiscovered minor gem set in the bohemian scene in Greenwich Village, with a number of interesting name actors.
Murder à la Mod
1967 / 1:37 Flat full frame / 80 min.
Starring Margo Norton, Andra Akers, Jared Martin, William Finley, Ken Burrows, Jennifer Salt
Cinematography Bruce Torbet
Original Music W.F. Finley, John Herbert McDowell
Produced by Ken Burrows
Written, Directed and Edited by Brian De Palma
Brian De Palma's Murder à la Mod hails from 1967; the disc copy claims that it was exhibited in one New York theater and then never much thereafter. The director's The Wedding Party, Greetings and Hi Mom! have been at least marginally available but Murder à la Mod will be big news for film students looking for more De Palma to dissect and analyze. It turns out to be an overly clever but entertaining rethink of ideas from -- guess who -- Alfred Hitchcock, with a little Michael Powell and Stanley Kubrick thrown into the mix. Add appearances by De Palma stalwart William Finley and first-time actors Jared Martin and Jennifer Salt, and there's no mistaking the chef.
Murder à la Mod might as well be titled 'superstar student film' as it has everything to appeal to the 60s film crowd. De Palma puts his core subject matter right up front with odd photo montages, a slasher murder and a series of softcore screen tests of young women being asked to take their clothes off, thus introducing his voyeuristic theme directly through the camera. The chances were that a New York film school was one of the few places where Michael Powell's Peeping Tom could be seen in 1966 and Murder à la Mod is filled with references to it.
As if suspended between film school and 42nd Street, De Palma is fascinated by slimy skin flick moviemaking. His leading character Christopher makes 'hot' nudie films and turns out to be a criminal with a Peeping Tom camera. His straightforward audition takes don't get the desired results, so he simply steals images of his seductions with his overhead spy camera. Just as Peeping Tom's secret film lab was the dirty secret file of its murderer-hero's warped brain, Christopher's upstairs office contains his two 'other selves,' a ruthless smut producer (Murder à la Mod's real producer Ken Burrows) and an infantile prankster, William Finley.
Brian De Palma puts all of his energy into how his story is told, as most of the events depicted could be covered in a twenty-minute short. The script takes a page from Kubrick's The Killing by slicing up the same hour or so of real time into four or five overlapping viewpoints. A savage murder is seen from the point of view of the victim (with important moments carefully skipped over), and then a superimposed time reference tells us that we've wound back the back by half an hour to see the same events observed by another character, and so forth. The puzzle established has us looking for the clues that will make the crazy events gel into a comprehensible whole. Oddly enough, the distancing effect, plus a scene where a character carefully dons black gloves, make Murder à la Mod resemble later Dario Argento murder mystery giallos from Italy.
De Palma also encourages us to enjoy his film as a big cinematic joke. William Finley's absurd character cannot discern the difference between real and unreal, introducing an element of comic instability. The actual murder hinges on a pair of ice picks, one a real weapon and the other a harmless trick prop with a collapsing pick. As Finley plays with the picks, De Palma ridicules our desire to keep the two items straight by superimposing titles that identify which pick is which. De Palma also transitions between his various points of view with teasing freeze frames and other tricks. To initiate one new viewpoint, a watch dial is thrust before the camera instead of an identifying title.
The overlapping timeline technique would eventually lead De Palma to use split screens to create a literal sense of simultaneity; in Murder à la Mod his re-staging results in some glaring continuity errors, especially with those ice picks. This 'cinema playtime' tomfoolery was part of the charm of early De Palma right up through the bloody horror show Sisters. When it later became evident that De Palma wanted us to take his voyeuristic fantasies seriously, his films stopped being funny or serious.
The borrowed structures from Hitchcock, Powell and Kubrick may now seem dishonest, but in1967 they were a breath of fresh air. We didn't consider it stealing back then, but an homage; De Palma's early movies thrilled film students because he was there first and got a lot of attention. By 1970 Murder à la Mod was already a mostly unviewable legend, just the kind of thing a director needs to build a desirable aura of genius.
Murder à la Mod is indeed clever and fun to watch. DePalma piles on tension devices large and small -- a potential parking ticket, purloined riches from a bank vault (as in Psycho), the tracking of a mystery steamer trunk. The Manhattan locations now seem nostalgic. The soundtrack makes room for a join-the-army jingle ("If you're good enough!") and disconnected dialogue from a TV soap opera that happens to be identical to Christopher's whining excuse that Karen should cooperate with him because "he needs the money to divorce his wife." De Palma uses directorial tricks to tell 80% of his story, leaving Margo Norton's concerned Karen to provide a sympathetic heroine.
One of the best moments comes right at the top, when Jennifer Salt appears as one of the girls being tricked into undressing on camera. It's a fine little performance. Brian De Palma helped launch a lot of influential talent, like Jill Clayburgh and Robert de Niro.
The flawless print of Murder à la Mod will make this minor treasure a must-have for Brian De Palma's legions of fans. Both sound and picture are sharp and clear. The show at first looks as though it was meant to be cropped, but many compositions require the entire 1:37 frame.
The Moving Finger
1963 / 1:37 flat full frame / 81 min.
Starring Barry Newman, Lionel Stander, Carol Fleming, Garry Goodrow, Barbara London, Art Smith
Cinematography Max Glenn
Original Music Shel Silverstein, Teddy Vann
Written by Carlo Fiore, Larry Moyer
Produced, Directed and Edited by Larry Moyer
Something Weird's second feature offering is almost completely unknown but merits a full reappraisal. Writer-director-producer Larry Moyer's The Moving Finger is a reasonably intelligent thriller set in the bohemian corners of Greenwich Village circa 1963. Populated by old-time actors and a couple of promising new names, it's photographed by Max Glenn, a camera associate from an early Stanley Kubrick film and co-written by Carlo Fiore, a notorious Marlon Brando associate/biographer. The Moving Finger has excellent, authentic-looking Greenwich Village atmosphere. The acting styles are clearly influenced by John Cassavetes and Shirley Clark. Where has this movie been all these years?
The significance of the title The Moving Finger is obscure, unless it turns up in Lionel Stander's protest poetry readings. The film's rather radical attitude for 1963 shows a sexually and racially mixed group of light-fingered hipsters engaging in MPAA no-no activities, such as showering together and rolling reefers as a group ritual. Although there is no nudity, the faces of the guests at the film's centerpiece wild party are convincingly uninhibited; this must be the kind of corrupting atmosphere Mom and Dad warned us about. Unlike Paul Mazursky's affectionate memoirs of Greenwich Village, it's neither nostalgic nor romantic.
Add the casual acknowledgement that most of the NYPD is on the take and The Moving Finger becomes a film that might have a lit-tle problem getting a release. Think of it: Five years later Hollywood still conceived of the bohemian scene in terms of What's So Bad About Feeling Good? with George Peppard and Mary Tyler Moore as 'cute' proto-hippies in denial that they really want to go straight and have babies. In The Moving Finger the hipsters take care of a dying bank robber and don't immediately make plans to rob him. The unofficial leader (Vanishing Point's Barry Newman) encourages his girlfriend to sleep with the crooked detective, if that's what she's after. She doesn't care what happens as long as she can avoid returning home to her parents.
The Moving Finger avoids hipster dialogue except when Lionel Stander is putting on a show for the tourists. The film's satiric side is subdued. The kids have no illusion that they're anything but scroungers and chiselers, but even though Lionel Stander's coffee house is a tourist trap, he likes spouting his poetry. The young group is oblivious to how the world really works, as is revealed when one goofy member takes the gang for a shower at a rich lady's apartment. She turns out to be his mother.
The main message becomes clear when the older characters get serious about the robber's missing fortune. Stander tricks his young girlfriend into seducing the wounded bandit while Art Smith's disbarred doctor gets in line for his cut of the booty. Both actors were blacklisted for the bulk of the 1950s and put their bitterness into their roles. Besides Barry Newman, the younger standouts are Carol Fleming, Barbara London and Garry Goodrow, who I believe is the violin-playing extrovert with the rich mother.
Larry Moyer's direction is surprisingly good, with excellent scenes shot in the middle of crowded sidewalks, crowded parties and the smoky espresso club. The characters are presented with an unsentimental clarity. The Moving Finger is better than many noted 60s "New American Cinema" efforts.
The Moving Finger is also in fine shape. The mostly post-dubbed soundtrack is a bit tubby but entirely audible. Both of these features must have been recovered by Something Weird in original element form.
A third bonus feature returns the disc to more traditional Something Weird content. Harold Klein's An Eye for the Girls is a painfully tedious, unfunny comedy that must have been filmed as grindhouse filler for when a scheduled skin flick failed to show up. It's made of randomly spliced old stock shots, titles written on a chalkboard and dozens of incompetently edited stills of comic Larry Gelman and various undressed women. The dirty old men on Times Square must have really felt cheated by this one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murder à la Mod rates: